When Jay Ebert's Macy's catalog went AWOL, he didn't panic. He scoured the department store's post-Thanksgiving ad on his smart phone instead. "It was so much easier ... I just clicked it and everything I wanted was saved," said Ebert, 17. "I didn't have to go through this," gesturing to a wadded-up paper ad being held by his friend. From comparing prices to snaring exclusive deals, more consumers will have their heads buried in their mobile devices this year, using smart phone applications to make sure they shop smarter.

Unlike online shopping, which takes a bite out of brick-and-mortar sales, experts don't expect mobile applications to keep shoppers at home. Instead they'll use their phones "as a tool to get good value and pricing," said Laura Conrad, president of the price comparison website PriceGrabber.com. It may even convince some shoppers who normally shop online to head out. "They can be more strategic and use their device to be efficient in the stores they shop and not go to stores that don't have stock," said Scott Erickson, a partner at the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche.

Depending on which survey you believe, the number of consumers planning to use smart phones to enhance their holiday shopping ranges from 17 percent to 59 percent, with the majority using their phones to compare prices and search inventories. Google said it has seen a 500 percent increase in mobile searches compared to last year.

But users are buying things too. According to technology research firm Aite Group, purchases via a mobile phone will account for $3 billion in sales in 2010, with that number growing to more than $27 billion in 2015. "Retailers are seeing it's becoming a more integral part of people's shopping experience," Erickson said of mobile applications. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive found 76 percent of mobile app users expect all major brands to have mobile applications that make it easier to shop and interact with the company.

Most every major retailer has taken this to heart, competing with each other to create the most innovative and easy-to-use features, whether it's a mobile shopping platform or sending out mobile coupons.

At Best Buy, shoppers can make purchases through Best Buy Mobile or scan QR Codes for product reviews. QR Codes, or "quick response" codes, look like a square jumble of pixels that when scanned takes you to enhanced content such as product reviews or videos online. Scan the QR Codes in Target's holiday catalog and you'll receive tips on holiday decorating and fashion.

'New and innovative' technology

"We're always looking for new and innovative ways to help our guests shop and get great value," Target spokeswoman Molly Koenst said. On a Target iPad application launched earlier this month, shoppers can flip through weekly ads, drag and drop products onto a shopping list and listen to exclusive Target holiday music.

Shopping malls also are getting into the act, offering special deals, help finding stores and other features on smart phones and via text messages. Shoppers at Eden Prairie Town Center, Knollwood Mall and Ridgedale Mall can join The Club, which lets you plot a route with the mall map, enter sweepstakes and access deals. Simon Property's Maplewood and Southdale malls have the Simon iPhone app with similar features.

Stores also are catering to the majority of Americans that continue to shop while carrying a standard cell phone. For these consumers, the focus is text messages featuring coupons and product alerts. For example, customers who sign up with Toys 'R' Us mobile messaging will receive alerts when the next shipment of Squinkies and LaLaLoopsy dolls hit the shelves.

Then there are location-based tools such as Shopkick. Shoppers who download the free application and walk into a Shopkick-ready Best Buy or Target location receive "kickbucks" for entering the store, exclusive coupons and additional kickbucks earned for scanning certain products. Kickbucks can be redeemed for gift cards and in-store discounts. Currently, 257 Best Buy stores in Minnesota and Target's downtown Minneapolis and Fridley stores are experimenting with the program.

But the game changer for retailers may be applications that turn your phone's camera into a barcode scanner. Analysts say that as shoppers hit the stores armed with a list of who has what and how much it costs, stores no longer control the conversation and will need to be even more careful about being price competitive, with inventory at the ready.

"People are much more informed than they ever have [been] before," said Dan Schock, Google's retail industry director. "It doesn't stop when they leave the house. They are taking their personal shopping assistant with them -- mobile phones."

"This is just one more step in the playing field being tilted in the favor of the consumers," said Greg Girard, program director at IDC Retail Insights.

Al Kruse stood in a jam-packed Best Buy on Black Friday with his friend Ebert, checking out deals on video games for the XBox Kinect. Using his smart phone, he was able to learn that Target, their next stop, had them for at least $5 cheaper. "In the long lines, we've been checking what we want next, planning out our route and stuff," the 19-year-old from Columbia Heights said.

A busy mom of two, Andrea Buzzell will use her iPhone to do research and keep track of her holiday gift list. She says the device will improve her holiday shopping experience, just like it does the rest of her life.

"It's going to organize it, it's going to make it easily accessible, and it's going to allow me when I have that free moment ... to go through and jot down what I need to jot down and search for what I need."

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293